Sunday, 29 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 29: A Long, Hot Bath

A long, hot bath is probably the last thing you'd choose in the middle of summer - but on a chilly winter day it's a lovely idea. Usually I shower because it's the quickest option, but on my day off today I enjoyed a long, leisurely bath and it was wonderful! Some relaxing me-time, spent soaking in hot, deliciously-scented water felt so indulgent. It helped unknot the tension I'd been carrying in my neck and shoulders (and appalled Mandrake the cat, who sat by the bath the whole time I was in it looking horrified that his human had been stupid enough to get so wet).

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 29

Indulge in a Long, Hot Bath

Try to find some time to yourself when you won't be disturbed - perhaps turn off your phone/take it off the hook. Prepare some lovely fluffy towels for when you emerge. Choose your favourite bath products (I love Lush for this), light a candle (or lots of candles!), take some reading material with you and maybe a drink (A glass of wine? Herbal tea?), or some chocolates. Soak as long as you like, feeling your tensions dissolving. Afterwards, dry off with your fluffy towels and dress in warm and comfortable clothes. 

And don't forget to reassure the cat that it's OK - you really won't dissolve. 


Saturday, 28 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 28: Holly Magic

Now that deciduous trees have shed virtually all their leaves, the evergreens come into their own. Especially eye-catching is the Holly, with its distinctive evergreen glossy, spiky leaves and bright red berries. A mature Holly tree can grow up to 15m and live for 300 years. 

Holly is dioecious (meaning male and female flowers occur on different trees), and only the female trees bear berries. Holly is valuable for wildlife. It provides protective cover and nesting opportunities for birds, while its deep, dry leaf litter is used by hedgehogs and small mammals for hibernation. The white flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects and they and the leaves are food plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars. In winter, Holly berries are a vital source of food for birds and small mammals, such as wood mice and dormice. Deer are known to graze the leaves. The mistle thrush is known for vigorously guarding the berries of Holly in winter to prevent other birds from eating them!

Holly wood is hard and white, with a fine-grain. It can be stained and polished and is used to make furniture, tool handles, walking sticks and chess pieces or in engraving work and marquetry. It also makes good firewood, burning with a strong heat.

The leaves and berries are toxic to humans, causing vomiting and diarrhoea. As few as 20 berries can be fatal to a child. 

In the Bach Flower Remedies, Holly is used to treat feelings of anger and jealousy. 

In folklore, Holly was often paired with Ivy, whose black berries symbolized night and darkness. In some regions, Holly was seen as the Winter King and Ivy the Winter  Queen. The carol 'The Holly and the Ivy' has its origins in this ancient belief. In other lore, the Holly King (symbolising Winter) battled with the Oak King (symbolising Summer) at the equinoxes. Holly was used as protection against malign spirits and lightning (it is now known that the spines on Holly leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors, thereby protecting the tree and other nearby objects), and it was considered unlucky to cut down a Holly tree. In heraldry, it symbolises truth.

Folk names include Holm, Hulver, Hollins, Aquifolius, Bat's Wings, Christ's Thorn, Holy Tree, Christmas Tree, and Tinne. In Welsh it is known as Celyn.

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 28

Holly Magic

Go out for a walk and try to find some Holly. Cut a few sprays of leaves (and berries if you can) - ask the Holly's permission first. Tie them into a bunch with red ribbon (to match the berries) or gold ribbon (to symbolise the Holly's 'Kingship') and tie them over your door as a protective winter charm.  

Friday, 27 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 27: Mindful Breath


The cold winter weather is now getting into its stride. The nights are freezing, the clear skies glittering with stars. The mornings are white with frost, sparkling in the slanting golden rays of the sun. 

This cold brings with it a winter phenomenon that has intrigued and delighted me since childhood - I can see my breath! In cold air, water vapour condenses quickly and easily. As a result, morning mist hangs in the folds of the hills, delineating their contours. And each exhalation of my breath is briefly visible, like a tiny personal cloud until it disperses on the breeze.

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 27

Mindful Breath

Our breath sustains us from the moment of our birth until that of our death. Yet for the most part it's not something we think about. Use the temporary visibility of your breath as a reminder to honour it, and give thanks for the wisdom of your body which just knows - without being told - how to take in the oxygen that your cells need and give away the unwanted carbon dioxide they produce so that it can sustain plants and trees. Breathing is simultaneously normal and miraculous. Give thanks and appreciation for every breath - visible and invisible!

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 26: Thanksgiving

Today is of course, Thanksgiving. It's an American celebration, not really celebrated here in the UK. But in the cold and dark of winter - especially the winter of this unprecedented and most difficult of years - it's rather a nice idea to literally count your blessings and give thanks.

I have to admit I was a bit sceptical in the past about the concept of formalising gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal or other similar practises. But over the years my thinking on this has shifted. Yes, it can feel a bit forced sometimes to produce regular lists of things for which you're grateful. But I've found that rather in the way that the more you seek beauty the more you see beauty, the more you count your blessings the more blessings you seem to have.

One of my favourite ways of practising gratitude is the Jar of Blessings. Do think about making one! But in the meantime, if you want to exercise your gratitude muscle the exercise below is a great way to ease yourself into the experience.  

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 26


In your journal, write a list of things you are grateful for today. You don't have to limit the number of things on your list, but try to come up with a minimum of three things. Include things that you are always grateful for - having a roof over your head, or the love you have for your children. Include things that you are grateful for that happened today - the person who lent you change for the parking meter, the particularly fine lasagne you cooked, the joke your friend told you that made you laugh out loud. Include whimsical things - the cloud you saw that looked like a giant duck, your rainbow umbrella. Include mundane things - the fact that the bus came on time this morning, the beautiful bunch of asparagus that was marked down in the greengrocers. 

It might take an effort to get started, but once you get going, you'll probably be surprised how many things you can list.

Try doing this every day leading up to Yule. Think of it like a kind of Advent calendar where each day you open a door onto all the different blessings that life has for you. If you find you'd like to continue the practise after Yule, please do!

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Secrets of the Road Less Travelled (pilot teaser)

I'm interrupting the usual flow of posts to introduce this trailer for a TV series my immensely talented brother has been working on. It's all about less well-known, but fascinating places in the UK. It's called Secrets of the Road Less Travelled and I think it's a great idea. My favourite in this trailer is 'The Lost Village of Dode' - just the name alone intrigues me. But when you see it... let's just say it doesn't disappoint!

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 25: Marking the Midpoint Between Samhain and Yule

I have been posting daily Winter Blessings and Beauties now since the day after Samhain, 1st November. By my calculations, that means today we are halfway between Samhain and Yule, and more than a quarter of the way through the period between Samhain and Imbolc. From the perspective of writing a daily blogpost on winter, the first 25 days have gone by really fast! The days continue to shorten, the nights grow colder, and Yule grows ever closer. 

Apparently 25th November is St Catherine's Day, or to use its old name, Catterntide. Jacqueline Durban has written a wonderful blogpost giving a traditional recipe for making Cattern Cakes here. If you would like to mark the occasion, the Cattern Cakes sound like a wonderful way to do so!

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 25

Mark the Midpoint Between Samhain and Yule

At the midpoint between Samhain and Yule, take time to pause and sense the shifting energies. Samhain is the onset of winter and Yule its midpoint, when the sun reaches its nadir and pauses, before beginning to grow in strength again - just a little each day. can you sense a difference in the pulse of life? Does the air smell different? How is the soft animal of your body reacting to the shortening days and frosty nights?

Take a moment to recognise and give thanks for the patterns of the ever changing year. Take in a good breath of cold winter air, and raise a toast to winter (hot spiced apple juice, maybe?). Or celebrate by baking a batch of Cattern Cakes!   

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 24: Winter Restorative, Nest Therapy

The essence of winter is a period of rest and renewal for the earth. It's a time of repose, a break from the buzz and bustle of life, breathing space in the seasonal cycle of germination, growth and harvest. 

For humans, adequate rest and sleep is required to recharge our batteries, allowing our brains time to reorganise, consolidate and process the events of our waking lives, and our bodies to repair, rejuvenate and rebuild themselves at a cellular level. Our requirements for rest can fluctuate depending on such variables as age, levels of activity and health. 

So, do you get as much rest as you need? I know I don't always manage to get enough hours of sleep, and at times I let myself get completely overcommitted and stretched too thin. If I'm just a little overtired from lack of sleep, I can usually get back onto an even keel quite easily by taking a nap or going to bed early. But on the occasions when I've been pushing myself too hard for weeks or even months at a time, a few early nights aren't really going to be enough. Ideally at those times I'd like to take a holiday or go on retreat - but that's not always possible. It's for such times that I invented what I call 'nest therapy'. 

I indulge in nest therapy when I'm feeling completely drained physically and/or mentally. The first day that I have to myself is nesting day! I find a quiet, secluded spot in the house or (in summer) the garden. I use every duvet, cushion, pillow, quilt, blanket and throw in the house to build a soft, cushiony nest that I can curl into. I retreat into my nest with comforting things such as a flask of hot tea (or icy lemonade in the summer), a good book or a colouring book and pens (if I'm not too tired to want entertainment), some snacks, a cat or two... and I just rest. I eat, drink and drift in and out of sleep according to what my body tells me it needs. I completely avoid all thought of 'should' or 'ought' and focus on self-nurturing and rest. I prefer to avoid electronic forms of entertainment like radio, TV or internet during my nest therapy, listening instead to the rain on the roof or birdsong and letting my thoughts just drift.

I've enjoyed nest therapy in dappled sunlight under a silver birch tree in the summer, alternately dozing and listening to bees buzzing in the clovered lawn and the soft murmuring of the chickens. I've enjoyed nest therapy in the depths of winter, curled snugly under blankets and nest-sharing with a purring cat. Dozing, dreaming, feeling the knots in my shoulders dissolving and the fog of exhaustion gradually lifting. It's not something I do very often, saving it for those times when I need more than just an early night. But on every occasion, it has been deeply restful and restorative. 

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 24

Winter Restorative: Nest Therapy

At those times when you're in need of some serious rest and relaxation, try a day of nest therapy. 

Set aside a day - or at least a few hours -  all to yourself. Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes. Put down a cushiony layer of pillows etc on which you can lie - or you could use an airbed. Drape quilts, blankets and duvets around the edges to keep you feeling safe and secure. Bring those things you need to help you feel comfortable, safe, entertained etc - such as books, snacks, a water bottle or flask, your journal, a favourite stuffed animal - and place them in your nest or within easy reach. Turn off your phone if you are able to. Get into your nest and make yourself comfortable. Relax - you've earned a rest!


Monday, 23 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 23: Walking On the Land, Walking In the Sky

This morning I had to scrape ice from the windscreen of the car before I could drive to work, and the trees and fields were wrapped in fog. There is something quite magical about the way mist and fog change the world. Sounds are muffled, boundaries blurred, a new horizon is plotted as the world beyond a certain distance appears to simply vanish. A misty, foggy day makes me want to play mental games of 'what if?' with myself. What if the wider world really has vanished? What is this new island set adrift in a blurry sea? Where does the sky end and the land begin? What is real?

Fog renders the world a liminal space, a crossing place between the mundane and the magical. The air we breathe is simultaneously air and water. The world is there as usual and mysteriously hidden at the same time. We are walking on the land and in the sky at the same time!

I love this poem by Edward Storey, which manages to convey the ephemeral magic of fog. Those last two lines! "While in the village, children sleep/never to know they slept in sky". How gorgeously magical!

Winter Blessings and Beauties

Walking on the Land, Walking in the Sky

On the next foggy or misty day, try to get out for a walk to experience and fully appreciate the unique magic of the phenomenon. Imagine the new boundaries set by the fog are permanent. What would the word be like then? Try to hold the paradoxes and contradictions of fog in your mind. Know that you are walking in the sky at the same time you are walking on the land. Feel the blessings of earth, air and water surrounding you. 


Sunday, 22 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 22: Camera Challenge

I took this picture a couple of days ago when I'd gone out to photograph some ivy for yesterday's 'Winter Blessings and Beauties'. It was not a very promising day for photography, wet and grey - and the afternoon light was fading fast. But on my way back to the house after photographing the ivy, my eye was caught by raindrops hanging on the twigs of the hedge. Looking through the viewfinder and adjusting the focal length I spotted this last, lone coppery leaf, its soft curving lines contrasting with the stark bare twigs, the hanging raindrops bright against the greyness of the day. A small, perfect tableau.  

This is one of the things I find about taking photos for the blog - knowing that I'm going to want something to illustrate the posts means that I am always looking out for suitable images. And the wonderful thing about that is that the more I look, the more beauty I see in the world around me. This photograph is a case in point - normally on a cold, rainy afternoon I would probably have my head down, not really seeing my surroundings, concentrating instead on getting back into the house as quickly as possible. But when I'm in 'photographer' mode, I see the world quite differently. I am looking for the beauty, and so I see it. It's always there, it's the state of mind I am in that allows me to see it - or not.

Famously, Dion Fortune said that "Magick is the art of causing changes in consciousness in conformity with the Will." By changing my focus when I am out with my camera, I am changing my consciousness, seeing things that I would otherwise overlook. More interestingly, when I see them my consciousness changes further. My experience of the world is deepened and enriched and my relationship with the world changes when I see all the beauty it contains. Engaging with the beauty of the world forges an emotional connection to it. As that connection grows and blossoms, the world becomes sacred. 

In winter it can seem more of a challenge to find beauty - the landscape is experienced in harsher weather and without foliage and flowers to soften it. But beauty is always there to be found, if we just remember to look. 

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 22

Camera Challenge

Take your camera, or use your phone to go out and look for winter beauty to photograph. Look for large-scale beauty - landscapes, seascapes, skyscapes, sunsets. Look for small-scale beauty - a seedpod, a spiderweb, a mossy rock. Look for interesting wildlife - birds, squirrels, foxes, deer. Look for human beauty - a child's smile, a warm hug, the grace of a skateboarder.

Then... look for winter beauty even when you DON'T have your camera to hand. It's everywhere. Enjoy it.              

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 21: Ivy Appreciation

Pic: Ivy (Hedera helix ssp. helix) showing both mature (left) and juvenile (right) forms of the leaves.  

As an evergreen, ivy is far more visible during winter which is probably one of the reasons it appears in much of the folklore for this time of year. It's long been used as a Christmas decoration along with holly, although using it this way was forbidden by an early Council of the Church because of its Pagan associations. Ivy and holly have long been paired, with ivy considered to be 'female' with holly her 'male' counterpart.

Ivy can grow up to 30m high. Contrary to popular belief, it isn't parasitic (it has its own root system in the soil which means it can absorb its own nutrients and water) and doesn't damage trees.

There are two native subspecies of ivy in Britain. Hedera helix ssp. helix (which climbs) and Hedera helix ssp. hibernica (which spreads across the ground - but shouldn't be confused with Ground Ivy [Glechoma hederacea] which isn't actually an ivy at all!) Hedera helix ssp. helix has two different forms - juvenile and mature. The juvenile plant has lobed leaves and the creeping or climbing stems have specialised hairs so the plant can stick to surfaces as it climbs. The mature forms have heart-shaped leaves on thicker, hairless, self-supporting stems. They are usually found high up in trees or at the tops of walls or cliff faces. To add further confusion, there are also many cultivated varieties of ivy, often with variegated leaves.

Ivy provides nectar, pollen and berries and is an essential food source for bees, butterflies, moths and birds during autumn and winter when other food sources are scarce. It also provides shelter for insects, birds, bats and other small mammals.

Although it has been used medicinally in the past, ivy is toxic and can cause skin irritation. It's not really suitable for amateur herbalists and is probably best left to the professionals!

In mythology ivy was sacred to Dionysus and Bacchus, both Gods of wine and intoxication who were depicted wearing wreaths of iv and grapevines. Paradoxically, it was believed that wearing a wreath of ivy leaves prevented one from getting drunk. The Romans used to hang a branch of ivy over the doorway of a place that sold alcohol, and the popularity of 'The Ivy Bush' as a pub name is believed to date back to this practice. Ivy wreaths were also awarded to athletes and poets as an honour.

Symbolically, ivy stands for friendship and fidelity. It was customary for priests to present a wreath of ivy to newly weds, and bridal bouquets often contained a sprig of ivy to bring luck to the marriage. 

Folk names for the plant include Bindwood and Lovestone.

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 21

Ivy Appreciation!

Pick yourself some sprays of ivy to decorate your home. Display them in a vase, trail them along a shelf or mantlepiece, or twine the stems into a wreath.   

Friday, 20 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 20: Resting Earth Meditation

The sky is grey and the wind is cold, hurling icy raindrops which sting my skin. I shiver, wondering, 'How on earth am I going to write about the Blessings and Beauties of Winter on a day like this?'. Looking at the bare-limbed trees I try to imagine how they cope with these long months of cold and drear. And then I feel it, and know. The answer is within the earth beneath my feet: the constant, supportive, enduring earth. That safe retreat where life may find sanctuary and wait out the hard times. The place to which autumn's seeds are entrusted until it is safe to emerge in spring. A place of rest and hibernation and shelter. Even in the darkest days, the pulse of the earth is there beneath our feet, a wordless promise of constancy and perseverance.

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 20

Resting Earth Meditation

You can stand, sit or lay down for this meditation. If necessary, experiment to find which works best for you - or you may already know. 

Close your eyes, and take some slow, deep breaths. Notice where you may be holding any tension in your body - relax each part of your body in turn, continuing to breathe slowly and deeply. 

Feel where your body is connected to the ground. Feel the way gravity holds you safely in connection to the earth. Now imagine yourself sinking into the soft, enfolding earth, letting it cover your feet, your legs, your body as softly as a blanket. Let the earth hold you in a gentle, cocooning embrace, protecting you from the elements. You are free to rise up above ground whenever you are ready - but for now you are safe to rest here for as long as you need to. The earth will revive and replenish you, protect you from the elements, nourish and sustain your dreams through the lean times. 

Rest here for as long as needed, then when you're ready, imagine your body rising up out of the earth like a new shoot in spring. Stretch out your limbs, feeling the life coursing through you. Find yourself back in the room where you began. Know that any time you need to, you can repeat this exercise to draw on the steadfast, constant, replenishing earth for rest, strength and comfort.  


Thursday, 19 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 19: Winter Music

Music taps into our memories and emotions with the same immediacy as fragrances do. So I rather like the idea of creating seasonal playlists with those pieces of music that for whatever reason bring back memories or evoke feelings of spring, summer, autumn and winter. 

For a winter playlist, the obvious choices are all those Christmas songs that become inescapable in the lead-up to the end of December, but I'd like to think more broadly than that - a winter playlist that evokes not just one festival but the whole season. 

What songs or pieces of music make you think of winter when you hear them? It may be pop hits that were in the charts during the colder months, classical pieces which evoke winter (such as 'Winter' from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, or Debussy's 'The Snow is Dancing'), or pieces of music that just 'sound' cold and icy, like 'Somebody That I Used to Know' by Gotye. Or perhaps there's a song that always puts a smile on your face when you hear it because it reminds you of a treasured winter memory. 

Here are a few of my favourite pieces of winter music which always put me in a seasonal mood - some are specifically about winter, but some just 'feel' like winter to me. Which songs would it be for you?
  • 'Valley Winter Song' by Fountains of Wayne
  • 'Northern Lights' by Renaissance
  • 'Fairytale' by Enya
  • 'The Reach' by Dan Fogelberg   
  • 'River' by Joni Mitchell
  • 'White Winter Hymnal' by Fleet Foxes
  • 'Somewhere Only We Know' by Keane
  • 'Porcelain' by Moby
  • 'Wintersong' by Sarah MacLachlan
  • 'Sleeping Satellite' by Tasmin Archer
  • 'Sometimes' by Erasure

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 19

Winter Music

Immerse yourself in the season by creating a playlist of your favourite winter music. Listen to it snuggled under a blanket by the fire, or while you're out on a winter walk, let it sink into your bones and inspire your winter dreams... 

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 18: A Murmuration of Starlings

For me, catching sight of a murmuration of starlings is truly one of the highlights of the winter season. Just as I eagerly await my first glimpse of snowdrops in spring, swallows in summer, and the bright colours of autumn foliage, so I look forward to the amazing aerial displays of starlings in winter. So far this year I have only seen small groups of the birds flying over us here at Halfway Up A Hill on their way to roost, but I'm looking forward to my first sight of a proper murmuration soon. I vividly remember my first encounter with this awe-inspiring phenomenon, in fact I wrote about it here on the blog

Another time, a huge flock of starlings descended on a field across the valley, so many that they turned the green grass of the hillside to black. As I watched in fascination, I spotted an enterprising fox prowling along the line of the hedge, keeping low to the ground - obviously in hope of snatching an unwary bird from the edge of the flock. Just as he drew close enough to pounce, the entire mass of birds lifted off, just a foot or two from the ground, swirled briefly in the air like a huge dust-cloud and resettled. It looked exactly like the shrug of a gigantic amorphous beast - and the fox obviously thought so too as he turned tail and fled. Clearly, the swirling undulations of a murmuration serve a useful purpose, by confusing and unsettling potential predators. But they are also a virtuoso performance of collaborative power and beauty, a magical, spellbinding sight which seems to defy logic. 

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 18

Watch a Murmuration of Starlings

Try to find out if there is an area near you where it is possible to watch the starlings gather as they prepare for their evening roost. Some areas  - such as the Somerset Levels, or the piers at Brighton or Aberystwyth are well known for the huge murmurations that gather there. Do a bit of local research to find out where you are most likely to see them in your area. 

If you are lucky enough to see them, appreciate the magic. It is a true winter blessing!   

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 17: Recipes - Warming Winter Drinks


It's an unremittingly grey and stormy day. Wind blusters and buffets the house, and constant rain blurs the valley, creeping through every opening and trickling down my collar. Brrr! This is the perfect excuse - if one were needed - to snuggle by the fire with a nice mug of spiced apple juice. Spiced apple juice is the simplest of recipes, quick to prepare yet warming and soothing. Or if that doesn't appeal, why not try one of my other suggestions?

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 17

Warming Winter Drinks

A hot drink on a cold winter's day warms the body, soothes a dry or sore throat and puts a smile back on your face. Here are a few suggestions to thaw you out. 

  • Hot Spiced Apple Juice: Add a generous pinch of ground cinnamon, a few cloves and a cardamom pod to a mug of apple juice. Heat in a saucepan or the microwave to just below boiling point. Strain out the spices and enjoy! You can also experiment with adding other fruit juices to the mix - pear, blackcurrant, plum or a spoonful of elderberry syrup are all tasty additions.
  • Golden Milk: You can use cows milk or vegan substitute - I find oat milk works well. There are lots of recipes out there on the internet, but this is how I make it. To a mug of milk, add 1tsp turmeric, ½tsp ground ginger, ½tsp ground cinnamon, pinch of black pepper, pinch of cardamom. Heat the milk to just below boiling point. Strain out the spices and stir in honey to taste. This is supposed to be good as an anti-inflammatory. I'm not sure if it helps my arthritis or not, but it tastes so good, who cares?
  • Flavoured Hot Milk: I find a mug of hot milk before bedtime really does help with a restful night's sleep, and it means I get into bed feeling nice and toasty! You can use dairy milk or a vegan substitute, and if you want to add flavour and sweetness, put in a splash of one of the syrups you can buy to flavour coffee. My favourites are either vanilla or hazelnut syrup, but there are many different ones to choose from, including cinnamon, caramel, gingerbread, amaretto, pumpkin spice or strawberry.
  • Hot Blackcurrant: Simply make up blackcurrant cordial with hot water instead of cold. Serve it in a mug. Hot blackcurrant cordial is wonderfully comforting when you have a cold.

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 16: Stargazing


“I will love the light for it shows me the way;
yet I will love the darkness for it shows me the stars.“

- Augustine “Og” Mandino

The long, dark nights of winter are a wonderful opportunity for stargazing. The earlier it gets dark, the earlier you can be out there - bundled against the cold, eyes turned heavenward, enjoying the ever-changing patterns of the night sky. With a little study you can learn to distinguish between stars, planets, meteors and passing satellites. There are constellations to identify, meteor showers to watch for and sometimes other astronomical phenomena to spot such as the milky way or comets. 
Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 16
The best nights to stargaze are those with little or no cloud-cover - although these will also be the coldest, so wrap up warm and maybe take a flask of hot tea or coffee with you! The skies will be darkest on the nights when there is little or no moon - those around the new moon are ideal. The November new moon fell on Monday 15th November, so the next few days are a great time if the skies are clear. The next new moon will be on December 14th. Try to do your stargazing as far away from light pollution as you can - though of course this will be dictated to a certain extent by where you live. The further you are able to get away from built up areas, the better. 
There are several meteor showers during winter - over the next few weeks, look out for the following:
  • The Taurids, which are split into two segments - the South Taurids which are visible now and will continue until November 25th and the North Taurids, which will continue from now until December 2nd.
  • The Leonids which are visible between November 15th–20th. 
  • The Geminids, visible between 14th-17th December.
  • The Ursids, which you can see between 17th-25th December.
  • The Quadrantids, between 1st-5th January.
You are most likely to spot meteors after midnight, but if you can't stay up that late there are plenty of constellations to enjoy, and planets such as Mars, Saturn and Jupiter to look out for. There's plenty of information on where and what to look for in the skies where you are on sites like this one
If the weather is cloudy, you can make the most of your time by studying up on the constellations so that you are well-prepared for the next clear night. You could also branch off and read up on the myths attached to the constellations, or teach yourself about the moon and its phases.
And if you do happen to see a meteor - don't forget it's a shooting star, so make a wish!

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 15: Turn It Around

'Winter Blessings and Beauties' is now on day 15! I can't believe I've been disciplined enough to manage to post every day so far - I hope to be able to continue all the way through to Imbolc. An interesting side-benefit for me is that I have been engaging far more mindfully with Winter than I normally do, and I'm feeling quite positively towards the season as a result. How is the experiment working for you up to now? 

It's not that I expect to be full of the joys of Winter from beginning to end - I really dislike the kind of fake positivity that would require. But I am hoping to be more aware and appreciative of the positive aspects of the season, and so far that seems to be the case.

But if appreciating Winter still feels like a bit of an uphill struggle how about this - give a bit of thought to the things which seeing as it's winter, you don't have to worry about. Things like... wasps. Sunburn. Mosquito bites. Hay-fever. Mowing the lawn. You get the picture! Once you start making a list it's quite surprising how many burdens are lifted by the presence of Winter.

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 15

Turn it Around

Instead of pining for the things you miss about the summer, try making a list of the things you don't miss at all! What made you uncomfortable? What was inconvenient or difficult? What extra expenses were incurred? What extra chores were necessary? Think about how grateful you are for not having to waste any time or energy on any of these things during Winter! 


Saturday, 14 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 14: Winter Fun for Children and Your Inner Child

The trees have mostly lost their leaves to the recent winter storms, and I find the drifts of them irresistible to sift through. I search for choice beautiful specimens to bring home, like a child picking up shells on a beach. Today I was inspired by the different shapes to make some leaf rubbings, something I haven't done since my schooldays. Early winter is a good time to take leaf rubbings as there are plenty of fallen leaves to choose from, yet they are still fresh and pliable - later in the season they can become too dry, crumbly and fragile to use for leaf rubbings.  

If you would like to make your own leaf rubbings, choose freshly fallen leaves (or even pick some green ones from plants or wildflowers - I managed to get a good result from some Japanese anemone leaves from the garden). The best leaves to use are not too soft, with a clear shape and some prominent veins for texture (tip: often the veins stand out best on the back of the leaf rather than the front). Wax crayons work best, but you could also use coloured pencils, charcoal, or soft graphite pencils. Put the leaf on a hard, level surface such as a table top or a tray. Put a sheet of paper over the top, and then rub the crayon or pencil over the paper to reveal the shape and details of the leaf beneath - experiment to find the level of pressure that works best. Let your inner child have fun! Later you could cut out the leaf shapes and use them to decorate your home.

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 14

Winter Fun for Children and Your Inner Child

Remember all the fun things you used to do as a child during the winter? Share them with your children - or re-introduce them to your inner child! Have fun!

  • Take leaf or bark rubbings
  • Make a big pile of autumn leaves - and jump in it! Use the leaves to build forts, or labyrinths.
  • Play Poohsticks
  • If you're lucky enough to have snow - enjoy it! Make a snowman, have a snowball fight, make snow angels, write your name in the snow, make snowcastles (like sandcastles), catch a snowflake on your tongue, stand outside in falling snow and try to catch snowflakes on a dark-coloured background so you can see their six-sided crystal structure
  • Put on your wellies - and jump in every puddle you see!
  • Toast marshmallows round a fire
  • Go tobogganing or ice skating

Friday, 13 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 13: Bringing the Winter Garden Indoors

Wandering in the garden today, I noticed the beauty of the crocosmia seedpods. When they first form they are green, gradually turning to a bright orange which then fades to brown as the weather grows colder. At this stage of the winter some still glow orange, while others are ageing to russet and bronze. I decided to pick some for a winter bouquet, then - my curiosity piqued - I decided to see what else remained in the garden for me to add. Amazingly, even at this time of the year I had quite a lot to choose from!

First I added some sprays of ivy, complete with their winter berries (I made sure to leave plenty for the birds). Then I added a lot of oregano seedheads, which although a dark brown colour worked well as a 'filler' much as gypsophila might in a summer bouquet. There were a few bunches of tansy flowers which hadn't quite gone over yet and their cheerful yellow buttons added a splash of colour. I put in a few of the skeletal dried seedheads of umbellifers including ground elder and fennel. The final finishing touches were the crimson twigs of a dogwood shrub which added more colour. The final result is a rather unruly and cheerful tangle of a floral arrangement, but I love its warm, rich colours and think it looks rather special and very seasonal accompanied by a few apples and squashes. 

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 13

Bringing the Winter Garden Indoors

Take a walk in your garden, the countryside or a park. See what you can find to make a winter posy or natural display for your home. Look for:

  • Colourful seedpods and berries 
  • Unusual coloured or shaped twigs
  • Pretty leaves
  • Winter flowers
  • Sculpturally skeletal seedheads 
Bring your treasures home and arrange them in a container or on a flat surface, somewhere you can see and enjoy their beauty.  

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 12: The Magic of Darkness

While writing this series of posts I find myself returning again and again to the question of just why we are so down on winter? I do think it has something to do with the dominance of dark over light during this part of the yearly cycle. I suppose it's sensible for a species with poor night vision to be wary of the dark - which could be concealing all kinds of hidden dangers. But the dark doesn't contain only danger - it contains enchantment and beauty too. I love this poem which celebrates the power and magic of darkness:


We are in a state of continual transformation: fresh atoms are continually being reincorporated in us, while others that we received beforehand escape from us.

('De l'Infinito', Giordano Bruno)

Wonderful, what will come out of darkness:

stars, owl voices, sleep;

water, green shoots, bird's eggs

with their own curved darkness;

gemstones; a whole and perfect child

from my unseen recesses; delight

from behind shut lids, finding each other,

fingers and tongues made delicate by night.

Great magic's performed after sunset.

Old alchemists conjuring angels,

witches dancing spirals under the moon;

drum-shamans, their spirit journeys;

three nights in a tomb

Staging a resurrection. Transformations

taking place out of ordinary sight.

Daylight gives us boundaries, fixes

everything. The world separates

into colours and chemicals, figures

and faces. Surfaces appear solid

reliable, unconfused. We can see

to operate complex machinery.

Only darkness permits mixing

of elements, stirring of essences

in secret, combing dark and bright

into new patterns while we sleep; so dawn

finds us transformed, shifted.

Star-particles link us with trees

dolphins and stones, travel through us

creating the universe. Base matter

becomes gold: in the Cauldron

of Annwyn, in the crucible of mind

we're all magicians. The Hidden Stone,

Elixir of Life, eludes us; we've lost

the art of working through touch

with invisible forces: but as darkness

rises, and we grope wildly, perhaps

out of chaos the magic will come right.

- Hilary Llewellyn Williams

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 12

The Magic of Darkness

What magic do you find in darkness? When you can't see clearly, what beauties are revealed to your other senses? What possibilities and transformations arise? Consider how darkness complements light, the balance and interplay between the two, how shadows add depth and contrast. Try writing your own poem praising the dark.



Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 11: Look Up!

The world seems to turn in on itself during winter. The green world withdraws its energy and becomes mostly dormant, animals hibernate and the short hours of daylight and cold weather can make staying at home seem like the best option for humans. 

Yet conversely, the skies above us seem to expand their horizons without the obscuring foliage of trees. The sun, lower in the sky, casts long, beautiful rays to caress the land. And as days shorten, both dawn and sunset become more accessible. Instead of hunching against the elements, look up! The winter skies are beautiful, and often far more changeable and colourful than the anodyne blue skies of summer. Within an hour you may see blue change to dove grey, to charcoal, to mother-of-pearl, to peach, to scarlet. There are a multitude of cloud shapes and sizes and textures. There are rainbows and storm clouds and bright, clear sunlight. Make the most of this endlessly changing beauty while you can. The best bit? You can even enjoy it through a window, from the comfort of home! 

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 11

Look Up!

Remember to look up periodically during the day to enjoy the ever-changing big skies of winter. Snap photos of the beauty you see. Write poems inspired by the interplay of dark and light, sun and rain. Read the symbols you see in the skies. Try manipulating clouds with your mind. Be dazzled by swirling murmurations of starlings, rooks, jackdaws or even pigeons. Learn the names of star constellations. Watch the night skies for meteors. Follow the phases of the moon. 


Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 10: Breathe In Winter

I love that each season has its own set of different smells and fragrances. If you tried the
'Winter Senses' exercise on Day 4 you may already have given this some thought. The lovely thing is that by being aware of this you can notice which scents bring back positive memories and feelings and incorporate them into your life. The musty odour of leaf litter may recall happy walks through winter woodland. Woodsmoke can evoke cosy evenings snuggled by the wood-stove, or convivial evenings round a bonfire under the stars with friends. Kitchen spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg could call to mind previous years' preparation of delicious Yule feasts.

What are the winter scents that you love best? Which make you feel cosy, secure, happy? Personally, I love the smell of woodsmoke from our Rayburn... the aroma of a cinnamon and orange scented candle... the smell of snow on the wind... the odour of freshly split logs... the warm, comforting fragrance of mulled wine... the pine resin scent of a real Christmas tree... hot mince pies fresh from the oven... roasting chestnuts...

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 10

Breathe in Winter

Make a list if your favourite winter scents and make an effort to fragrance your life with them. 

  • There are an amazing array of scented candles and wax melts available to suit every nose - you can even get ones that smell of wood smoke if you're unable to enjoy a real fire!
  • Essential oils can be diffused from an oil burner - think pine, orange, cinnamon, cloves, vetiver, peppermint etc. Use them singly or concoct your own personal winter blend.
  • Cook your favourite winter recipes and enjoy the delicious odours wafting through your home.
  • Choose soaps, shower gels, lotions etc in scents that make you think of bright, frosty days and cosy winter nights.
  • Bring in plants that smell of winter - decorate your home with evergreen sprays of spruce, cedar and pine, start growing a pot of fragrant narcissi on the kitchen windowsill, bring in posies of scented winter-flowering plants like mahonia, daphne, witchhazel and wintersweet.
  • Create your own winter pot pourri and place it in bowls around the house, or try these 'stove-top simmering' pot pourri recipes.

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 9: Noticing the Changing Season

You know, I think one of the traps people fall into when thinking about 'winter' is conceiving of it as a monolithic block of a season, a bleak dreary period during which the best thing you can do is just to put your head down and endure until the sun returns in the spring.

This is of course nonsense. Like all seasons, winter evolves and changes throughout its course. Noticing this seasonal evolution is simply a matter of paying attention to the ongoing subtle changes in the natural world.

Here in West Wales I am noticing that the rowan berries, blackberries and sloes of autumn have almost completely disappeared from the hedgerows, replaced by haws and holly berries. A few days ago I saw my first small flock of starlings - not enough to create a magical murmuration, but soon more and more will be gathering as they prepare to roost. The weather is still mostly mild, but we have had a few frosts. By the time a few more weeks have passed, it will almost certainly be much colder with frosty nights the norm. I hope I will be seeing some breath-taking starling murmurations, and the hungry birds will have begun to eat the winter berries and haws, leaving the hedges looking ever more stark. 

By watching winter change and develop through all its stages, we can move away from that mindset of having to endure an endless, dreary procession of cold, dark days instead seeing winter as a dynamic, constantly evolving being which we can savour and engage with. 

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 9

Note the Changes

Try to take a walk in nature each day, or failing that spend daily time in the garden or park. If you are unable to physically get out, it's still possible to observe the changes through a window by watching how the weather, trees, birds, animals, plants etc in your area adjust and transform week by week. Make notes in your journal about your observations. Press leaves and flowers, take photos, make sketches, make lists of the species you identify. As time passes, look back and see how winter has developed and changed over the weeks...